Are You Eating Too Much Sugar?
We often think of gooey brownies, cookies or candy as the main source of sugar in our diet. However, sugar is found in many processed foods that we don’t even think of as being sweet. Glucose, fructose, maltose, sucrose, dextrose, starch, corn syrup, fruit juice, raw sugar and honey are all other names for sugar. It is found in canned tomatoes, bread, granola bars, yogurt; the list goes on and on.
Not All Sugars Are Bad
We do need to include sugar as part of our diet. Our bodies break down the carbohydrates found in fruits and vegetables into sugars to give us energy. Our brain and muscles use sugar as a fuel source.
Processed sugars are very refined and depleted of any nutritional value that may have been present in the starting material. It is an added ingredient in many of the food items we ingest daily.
Sugars naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables can be beneficial to our health. Whole foods contain a host of nutrients and fiber which are necessary to have healthy functioning bodies. This is the type of sugar we want to include as part of our diet.
Although fruit juice contains natural sugars, it’s not as healthy as eating the whole fruit. The fiber found in whole fruit aids in digestions and in slowing down the absorption rate of the fruit sugars, keeping its glycemic index lower. The fiber in fruit can also help to make you feel full whereas fruit juices will not give you that feeling.
Your Brain On Sugar
Every time you eat something containing sugar, your body goes through a series of chemical changes. It starts right at the taste receptors on your tongue. The taste receptors on your tongue will send a signal up through the brain stem to the cerebral cortex. Your rewards system is located there.
When we eat sugar-rich foods, electrical and chemical signals produced by the brain will increase our dopamine levels. When we do something perceived as pleasurable by the brain, the body releases dopamine. For example, when we eat a healthy meal, our brain will recognize that as a good thing and dopamine levels will increase. If we eat the same meal day after day, dopamine levels will decline.
This is a protective mechanism to ensure that we eat a wide variety of food and acquire the necessary nutrients we need. This is also why sometimes we just don’t want to eat leftovers for supper for the third day in a row! When we eat sugar, however, dopamine levels continue to stay high even if we continue to eat sugar-rich foods. Our brains don’t get “bored” of sugars. This can lead to overactivation of our rewards system. We will continue to crave more of it to keep our dopamine levels high.
What About Alternative Sweeteners?
There are many varieties of sweeteners available on the market today ranging from natural options to sweeteners developed chemically in a lab. To our bodies, sugar is sugar. What I mean by that is our bodies can’t really tell whether it is table sugar that you are ingesting or if it’s maple syrup. However, there are some sweeteners that do not cause a large spike in our blood sugars and some with more nutritional content.
Natural sugars such as those found in honey are an option to use instead of regular table sugar. Honey will raise your glycemic (blood sugar) levels so you still want to make sure you are using it in moderation. Stevia has become popular over the last couple of years. It comes from an extract found in a plant in South America. It does not raise your glycemic levels. Stevia is sweeter than regular table sugar so you won’t need as much when sweetening your tea. Look for organic stevia without added ingredients to avoid using an overly processed product.
Aspartame is a human-made sweetener that is found in some processed foods, gum and diet sodas. Some people have noted side effects such as an increase in headaches from ingesting products containing aspartame. Aspartame’s safety as a food additive continues to be debated.
You can still enjoy a piece of cake and your favourite cookie on occasion. However, when you are craving a sweet treat, reach for a piece of fruit which is loaded with nutrients instead of going straight to the cookie jar. With Halloween being just around the corner, be sure to check out last year’s blog on Halloween candy and how to make healthier choices. Your body will thank you!